As most of our working situations have shifted from an in-office setting to working from the same place we just woke up 10 minutes ago, I can’t help but wonder whether that dreaded and often-mocked water cooler talk actually boosted productivity and motivation.
I miss interacting with coworkers in 3D instead of on a screen or over the phone. I miss the water cooler talk, or in the Quattro office, the Keurig talk. And being an agency near Philadelphia, who knows when things will completely return to normal — if they ever do.
The water cooler is famously known as the place where coworkers gather for meaningless small talk as a short break from work. Most people hate small talk. I’m usually one of those people. But, working from home for 104 days and counting, I’d do anything for some in-person chitchat. There’s just something about a video call that makes catching up so much more difficult. Where’s the water cooler when you need it?
It’s hard to detangle nostalgic memory from historical fact when it comes to pre-COVID office life, but I find myself comparing my current productivity to my output before social distancing. Was the water cooler actually an effective tool to increase workplace productivity? I’m not sure, but once and for all, let’s find out the truth about the water cooler.
Social connection leads to job satisfaction and productivity.
Humans are social by nature. We thrive on connecting with others — even if it’s a small interaction with the grocery store cashier or a brief conversation with another shopper who happens to also be looking for peanut butter. (True story.) During the pandemic, these small interactions have made a huge difference in my day, and I had never truly appreciated them back when I knew I could get my social interaction “fixes” from actual friends, family, or coworkers.
Water cooler conversations are similar to these grocery store encounters since they typically only last for a few minutes. But how do small social interactions like these correlate to productivity? In a study conducted by a research group from MIT, workers were 10% more productive when they felt socially connected to their coworkers. As it turns out, each little conversation you have throughout the day has the ability to reenergize and motivate you to be productive.
Additionally, these small talk conversations may actually be focused on the job itself, offering employees the chance to ask questions and learn. Whether you’re discovering new information about an important project, or just listening to your coworker’s perspective on a situation, this leads to even more productivity and a better understanding of your job and team.
Taking breaks from work allows you to refresh and reset.
Working for hours and hours with no break will leave you burnt out in no time. Your brain and body require time to get up and disengage from the work you were doing. With a few minutes of mindless small talk, you can come back to your work with a fresh perspective and new ideas.
Sure, getting up and going for a walk to clear your mind will also work, but it’s important to incorporate some social interaction throughout the day to get out of your own head.
Water cooler talk enhances company culture.
Another benefit of water cooler talk is the ability to strengthen company culture. When you make a personal connection with coworkers at the water cooler, you learn more about them and what their life is like outside of the office.
Think about a new employee. At first, it’s awkward. That new employee is figuring out their place in the company’s culture and doesn’t know very much about the other employees. The same goes for the seasoned employees who don’t know much about them either. However, by getting to know each other little by little over time, that employee will eventually become comfortable with their place in the company’s culture. This is where they can finally begin to develop and grow with the team — all from a few water cooler chats that may have nothing to do with actual work.
Disclaimer: Not every conversation is a winner. Toxic water cooler talk can have a negative impact on company culture, so just make sure to avoid topics like politics or any of these annoying water cooler conversations.
Take the water cooler away, and what do you get?
With the pandemic, we’ve been pulled away from the water cooler and now have to find alternative ways to reap its benefits. At Quattro, we’ve moved happy hour to a video call and even have weekly email chains where everyone can share a little piece of their life in quarantine.
While these have been a great way to bridge the gap, nothing can fully replace the feeling of in-person chitchat that comes with working in the same space as your coworkers. These strange times are likely to change the way we work together in the future, both near and far. But workplace banter will always be essential to a healthy office culture — whether or not there’s an actual water cooler to gather around.
For more tips on productivity in the workplace, check out our blog on 3 ways to be more productive by connecting to nature.